The year is 1997, and talk show host Rosie O’Donnell is interviewing me about the smash hit “I Want You.” It’s a song Rosie helped make a Billboard Top 5 hit, having played what she affectionately nicknamed “The Chica Cherry Cola Song” incessantly during her show’s intro segment for months prior to us even landing a U.S. record deal.
Rosie’s obsession led to U.S. airplay, then a bidding war between major record labels, and suddenly, there I was, Darren Hayes, this inwardly shy kid from Brisbane ― a blue-collar, conservative, hyper-masculine city in the north of Australia ― sitting comfortably on the couch of the biggest daytime television show in the United States, oozing star power as half of the hot new Australian pop duo Savage Garden.
To the casual observer, I appeared confident, full of swagger with my vaguely ’70s blow wave and a blue-black dye job that could rival Elvis in his prime. But my bravado was a carefully crafted persona, built to protect me from years of bullying at school, denial and shame about my sexuality, and a mask to hide the rapidly increasing depression that would soon become overwhelming.
I was beginning to experience the full force of a mental illness that had seeded itself when I was a child, partly inherited from my mother’s side of the family but mostly activated by trauma that had begun incubating from the age of 3 after my exposure to extreme violence growing up with a violent, alcoholic father who physically and emotionally abused my mother.
Nobody could have known any of this as they watched me on Rosie’s couch. Savage Garden was on the precipice of global fame and would go on to sell 26 million albums, have two Billboard No. 1 singles and tour the world. Yet no one knew I was deeply unhappy, barely containing secrets that would soon devastate me emotionally and send me to the brink of suicide at the height of my fame.
I like to think that, even at the beginning of my career, I had a healthy fear of celebrity, so much so that I was able to curate a very particular kind of fame, one I refer to as “Google-able.” When I walk down the street, nobody stops me. I almost never get asked for an autograph unless I’m performing, and even at the height of my chart success, the paparazzi were always following someone else.
I like to think I designed my strange secret celebrity to be that way because of my sense of foreboding about what might happen to me should someone dig too deep and find out the horrors that lay beneath. I was completely unguarded and transparent in my music, in my lyrics, and when I performed, but there was this anvil of shame over my head for so long that I had learned to keep a very healthy distance between the real me and the public persona.